Blogs by Nathan

40 Days

Lent was never something I participated in as a kid. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I even heard about it and that people gave something up for a few weeks. Of course, all my friends were giving up sodas and chocolate and so I associated Lent with giving up things that were bad for you anyway and clumped it together with New Year’s resolutions. If you know you need to change, why wait for a certain day to make that change?

I also hated giving up the same thing as anybody else. Because Ive always done something random and that wasn’t a big deal to begin with, I don’t remember what I’ve given up in the past. But this year, hopefully, I’ll remember. You see, this year I gave up shaving. The fun part is, I go through seasons of trying to be clean shaven and seasons of wishing my beard was as long as the Duck Commanders. Not shaving is really just a normal part of my life. But I did this for one very specific and humiliating reason. So I could shave half my face and share this picture with you. 

Half Shave.jpg

There it is. In all it’s hideous, disturbing glory. Why would I go through 40 days of lent, take an embarrassing picture of myself, and share it with you? Because I want you to see how much someone can change in 40 days. Despite my track record of previous Lenten fasts, taking 40 days to get rid of stuff that weighs you down, distracts you from what’s important, or just isn’t good for you can make all the difference for your life. 

The great news is you don’t have to wait until New Years or next Ash Wednesday to get started. You can start to make a change right now. And by limiting yourself to 40 days there is always light at the end of the tunnel. And if you start today, April 30, there are exactly 40 days until Pentecost (just in case you want to keep in line with major religious holidays). 

I have a suggestion though, don’t think too hard about giving something up. Try to find things to add to your daily routine. For instance, you could:

  • Read the entire New Testament (it only takes 18 hours to read it out loud, or less than 30 minutes a day)

  • Pray through the Book of Common Prayer’s Daily Office

  • Get outside and just bask in God’s creation through walks, hikes, bike rides, bird watching, or whatever makes you happy. 

  • Find one random person a day and make it your goal to make them smile. 

  • Begin and end each day with a Psalm.

  • Memorize one verse a day.

  • Sit in absolute silence for 10 minutes a day, listening for God’s voice. 

  • Keep a journal, write down your prayers, look back at it often to see where God has worked.

  • Search scripture for each time the number 40 appears. 

  • Learn to play an instrument

We all could us a little change in our lives. Don’t put it off, start now.

When Church Is Like Football

I’ve lived in just about every part of the country east of the Rocky Mountains. But I’ve spent the majority of my life in “Southern” states like Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. Even though I still say y’all, there are a few things that make me distinctly not southern in most peoples eyes. I can’t stand gravy (I will literally scrape the gravy off of chicken fried steak if I’m too embarrassed to order it without gravy), I’ve never been a fan of grits, and I no longer live off of sweet tea. But despite my weird food choices, perhaps the greatest thing that makes me stand out is my indifference to college football, or really any college sport. 

I learned early on that I will get asked who my favorite team is several times and that if I claimed one of the actual good teams I would either make an enemy or a friend in less than a second. However, if I said Arkansas State (which is where I spent a year as an engineering major) people are so confused that they don’t know whether to make fun of me, feel sad for me, or ask me in disbelief “Why?”. 

While I was a youth pastor in Oklahoma, I ended up going to an OU game with a handful of students who had season tickets. We get to the campus, which is much bigger than I was expecting, and they directed me towards where we needed to park. As we were walking into the stadium they were giving away bobble heads of Adrian Peterson and they had a large poster as well that diagramed the perfect sooner (arm of Sam Bradford, speed of Roy Williams, etc.). My students were going crazy talking about each of the people listed on the poster and were excited about getting it hung up in their rooms, and even asked if we could hang one of them up in the youth room. 

As we made our way to the seats the crowd was already fired up. One of my guys turned to me and yelled here comes the schooner! The wagon pulled by two horses comes racing out of the tunnel. There were a whole bunch of other traditions that went on during the game that my students just ate up. They knew all the chants, they could even point to other season ticket holders, and they knew that one rather large fellow would take off his shirt and dance anytime OU scored (the game was something like 57-2, so there was lots of dancing). Once the game was done, they were so excited and they asked me what I though of the game. I did my best to be as positive about it as I could, but in reality it was one of the worst sporting experiences I’ve even been to. 

  • When we got to the OU campus, there were signs directing you towards the stadium, but that wasn’t where you parked. Parking was scattered throughout fraternities and education lots. My teens knew right where to go, but I was completely lost. 

  • The bobble head was cool. Even though I knew next to nothing about who Adrian Peterson was at the time, bobbleheads are always fun. They gave away something that appealed to a large spectrum of people. 

  • I gave the poster away. I knew maybe two names of the 15 or so people on the poster, and instead of getting me more interested or excited about the game, it was a harsh reminder that I was an outside.

  • All of the traditions that my students loved just felt weird to me. Besides constantly being reminded that I had no clue what was going on, it was hard for me to get excited about a couple of horses, songs I’d never heard before and couldn’t understand the words anyway, and many of the other traditions that had been slowly acquired over the years but hit me all at once. 

  • Sports chants are just dumb to begin with. I think the players know that they need to play defense or that they just got a first down. Yelling at them doesn’t somehow snap them out of a dream and remind them “Why yes, I think defense right now would be the wisest choice”.  (I understand that there are some psychological effects of chants and the energy and how it can help encourage players, but if you think about just the words, “let’s go Sooners, let’s go” is just redundant and void of any real meaning). 

  • I hate blow out games. The second best team in the nation was playing Chattanooga, so I knew going into it that it was going to be a win, but 57-2 is the type of game that does nothing for me. I would rather have a close, even sided game anytime. There was no suspense, and after watching a 400 pound Sasquatch of a man dance 7 or 8 times I dreaded another touchdown. 

But the best thing that came out of this experience is that I will never look at church the same again. I realize that’s not exactly what most people would take away from a football game, but it’s a memory that is seared in my brain. 

  • Churches usually don’t have confusing parking lots (or do they?) but anytime there is more than one building or entrance to a building there is confusion to a first time guest. Are our buildings clearly marked? Do the words that we use to label them have any actual meaning to the people coming onto our campus. Are there people who can help guide you to where you need to go so that you don’t feel completely lost from the beginning?

  • Do we give away something that people will actually enjoy? Does it make any kind of connection even if it’s just a bit of plastic on a spring?

  • How many times do we talk about people and expect everyone to know who they are? If we say “we all know the story of Moses” we instantly make people who aren’t aware of that story feel disconnected and inadequate. If we just say “go see George”, they have no context to figure out if we are taking about George Clooney, Curious George, or King George. Names matter, but even more important than the name is the ability to make connections between names and why we are saying them. 

  • What traditions do churches have that look strange to people outside the community? Early church critics thought Christians were cannibals because they ate Jesus’ body and blood. Baptism, kneeling at the altar,  acolytes, and so many other things have very little correlation to secular world culture, and so while we might be a huge fan of them and love the symbolism, do we explain to people why we do it?

  • God is good… If you screamed out “all the time” right afterwards, you already know about church chants. We don’t usually call them chants, we typically call them call and response. I won’t name specifics, but anytime someone says one thing and expects a response from other people based on that, you are drawing a line between those who are “insiders” and those who are not. 

  • We all look for different things in church. Some people like highly experiential worship with high energy, others prefer more meditative worship with heavy liturgy, and there are so many other methods of worship.  

One last thing that doesn’t correlate nicely with any of the previous bullet points. You have to define the win. Any football team knows what a win is. It’s where at the end of the game you have more points than the other team. But what is a win in church? Is it when they sing your favorite song or when you get out five minutes early? No, although sometimes those things are nice. A win for us is when someone comes to know Jesus for the first time or when someone grasps a deeper understanding and love for him. 

Punctuation Matters

“Let’s eat grandma.” is a very different statement from “Let’s eat, Grandma.” The first is the start of cannibalism, the second is a brief invitation. This one sentence has been a favorite example of mine for years on why punctuation matters. The irony here is that I am absolutely horrible at grammar and have to google things regularly to make sure I’m not breaking major rules. But do you know who didn’t have to worry about punctuation? Jesus. That’s right, sentence punctuation was something that was invented several hundreds of years after Jesus was born and most of the oldest manuscripts from the Old and New Testament were even written in all capital letters. 

While this makes the part of me that hates punctuation really happy, it has also been the source of a lot of frustration for theologians. Because we are in Lent and are looking toward the cross, Jesus said to the man hanging beside him “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43 NRSV). Out of all the possible things to debate concerning this verse, my guess is most people never think about the comma. The way the translators of the NRSV placed it after the word “you” means that “Truly I tell you” is a side bit, and that the main focus is that “today you will be with me in Paradise.” This leans towards an eschatology of when we die, we immediately go to heaven, or at least to what we presume to be our final destination. However, this passage could also read “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” which would lead to “Truly I tell you today” being a qualifier of when he said it, and then “you will be with me in Paradise” as the statement that is not dependent on a timeframe. It could be that that very same day, he was in Paradise, or it could be that he won’t be in paradise until Jesus returns. One comma has a considerable impact on an entire eschatological view, or what we think about the end things. (As a note, no major translation that I can find has the comma placed after “today”.)

Another horrible English nerd joke is making fun of Paul for his long run on sentences, and even sometimes how clunky his wording can be. As someone who doesn’t actually speak or read Greek, I have no idea if it sounds much better in Greek, but I can tell you that in Greek the run on sentences are much worse. Ephesians 1:3-14 is actually one entire run on sentence in the earliest Greek manuscripts. It is literally a 270 word run on sentence that I’ll post at the end of this blog. 

But as much as punctuation matters, it can get in the way of what really matters. We can do word studies. We can spend hours in the world’s most boring debate talking about where a comma or period should go. We can talk about the history of bad translations. But at some point, academic discussions become meaningless. It doesn’t really matter if I die and immediately go to heaven or if I’m in a some sort of suspended animation. The way I’m supposed to live my life isn’t dependent on what happens after it. If we get so caught up in the details that we lose sight of the key commands of loving God and loving our neighbor, we in effect don’t see the forest for the trees. 

But there is one thing that everyone should agree on. The Oxford comma is absolutely necessary. 

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ[a] before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,[b] having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this[c] is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.”

If You Don't Like It, Stay

One of the funniest things about being on Facebook is the process people go about unfriending each other or leaving groups. There are plenty of memes about this phenomenon but my all time favorite for accuracy says “Im going to unlike this page right after I post about unliking this page and hang around to see what people say about me unliking this page”. Somewhere along the way, we taught people that if you don’t like something you should just leave. You don’t like what’s on TV, just change the channel. You don’t like the song on the radio, go to the next station. You don’t like what your church is doing, just leave.

One of these things is not like the other…  While people (hopefully) don’t change churches like they change tv channels, there is at least a trend of people leaving churches because they don’t like something. As I’m writing this, I’m streaming the General Conference that is addressing the Way Forward concerning Human Sexuality. At this particular point, they are discussing ways in which a church could disaffiliate with the UMC if they don’t agree with the outcome of this conference. In other words, they’re talking about how they can leave if they don’t like it. 

I want to propose an alternative though. Instead of leaving if you don’t like the church, stay. If you leave, we lose your voice. If you leave, you have lost the ability to fix the problem. But if you stay, you can be part of the solution. You can be the person who points out “this isn’t right”. You can be the person who shows us another way. When you choose to stay, you are saying that this issue is important enough to fight for. 

In 1 Corinthians 12 we find a wonderful passage about one body, many parts. I want to point out a couple verses specifically. 

Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary.

If you think our church doesn’t need you, you’re absolutely wrong. We need you. We need your ideas, your passion, and your corrections.  We need you to help make us better. So if you don’t like what has happened in the UMC, stay. 

Snowy Days

Somewhere along the way, Christians decided that you are supposed to be happy. My guess is that it has something to do with our affinity for scriptures like “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace…” and songs with lyrics like “nothing gonna steal my joy”. I’ve heard people say they knew someone was a Christian by the way they smiled. It seems like if you aren’t happy the assumption is that you are having faith issues. 

Maybe it’s because of those expectations that so many church leaders, myself included, rarely talk about the very real struggles that we face. My go-to description of what living with depression is like came out after Anthony Bourdain committed suicide last year.

“When you have depression it's like it snows every day.

Some days it's only a couple of inches. It's a pain, but you still make it to work, the grocery store. Sure, maybe you skip the gym or your friend's birthday party, but it IS still snowing and who knows how bad it might get tonight. Probably better to just head home. Your friend notices, but probably just thinks you are flaky now, or kind of a jerk.

Some days it snows a foot. You spend an hour shoveling out your driveway and are late to work. Your back and hands hurt from shoveling. You leave early because it's really coming down out there. Your boss notices.

Some days it snows four feet. You shovel all morning but your street never gets plowed. You are not making it to work, or anywhere else for that matter. You are so sore and tired you just get back in the bed. By the time you wake up, all your shoveling has filled back in with snow. Looks like your phone rang; people are wondering where you are. You don't feel like calling them back, too tired from all the shoveling. Plus they don't get this much snow at their house so they don't understand why you're still stuck at home. They just think you're lazy or weak, although they rarely come out and say it….

The thing is, when it snows all the time, you get worn all the way down. You get tired of being cold. You get tired of hurting all the time from shoveling, but if you don't shovel on the light days, it builds up to something unmanageable on the heavy days. You resent the snow, but it doesn't care, it's just a blind chemistry, an act of nature. It carries on regardless, unconcerned and unaware if it buries you or the whole world.” (full description here)

As the Church, we have to do a better job of talking about mental health issues. Too many people put on a fake smile when they walk through our doors. They pretend everything is fine and that they are too blessed to be stressed when really they are surrounded by a blizzard no one else can see. Instead of pointing out the 267 times the word joy is mentioned in the Bible, maybe we should spend more time talking about how there are more lamenting psalms than thanksgiving psalms, or how Jerusalem’s wall was rebuilt because the king noticed Nehemiah was sad. We glance over the times that grief and anguish overcame Jesus, Elijah begged to die, basically the entire book of Job, the fact that we have a “weeping prophet”, and David’s several low points. We unintentionally alienate those who struggle with mental illness by our avoidance of the subject. 

But more damaging than ignoring mental illness in the church is trying to “fix” people. Depression is not a spiritual issue but a psychological and health issue. We can’t tell someone to pray the sad away anymore than we can tell someone who just had a root canal to pray the pain away. And that’s the rub. We believe in prayer. We believe that God still heals people, but we also know that God also doesn’t heal every person that’s been prayed for. The apostle Paul asked three times for the thorn in his flesh to be taken away, and God’s answer was “My grace is sufficient”. I pray that we all find God’s grace to be sufficient, that we learn to embrace our weaknesses for Christ’s sake, and that we never point to someone else’s weakness and think ourselves better.